In the intimate setting of Urban Cannibals Bodega & Bites in East Atlanta Village, Doria Roberts sang a couple of songs from her CD, “Black Eyed Susan,” released last fall.
Roberts, 40, a longtime Atlanta artist and activist, got the crowd involved, clapping hands, as she belted out songs from the new album that honors one of her friends, mentors and heroes — Odetta.
Odetta, a foremother of the Civil Rights folk music movement and one of Bob Dylan’s major influences, touched Roberts’ life in many ways in the times they played together in 2003 and when she toured with Odetta and the Holmes Brothers a few years later.
“So in her honor, I’ve stopped apologizing, started being ‘my people’ and have been jumping every chance I get … This is my gift to her,” Roberts writes on the back of the only photo she has of her and Odetta together, which is included in the “Black Eyed Susan” CD box. Odetta died Dec. 2, 2008.
Roberts and her wife, Calavino Donati, own and operate Urban Cannibals, so Roberts is also handy as a baker while her wife is a well-known and respected local chef.
The store sells food made from produce grown on local farms; finding a way to enjoy healthy eating at affordable prices is a passion both share. Roberts also kicks off a “Farm-to-Ear” tour to promote the CD as well as to support local farmers.
How did you come up with the name “Black Eyed Susan” for your CD?
When I was younger, I thought black-eyed Susans were sunflowers that didn’t get enough light. They used to make me sad. I’ve always felt that Odetta never really reached the audience she could have reached. The fact that she was one of Bob Dylan’s main musical influences but I still run into people today that have no idea who she was, is frustrating.
But, I eventually learned that black-eyed Susan is its own flower, not less than the sunflower, and has its own role and purpose in the world. So, the CD title was a nod to that sentiment: We are all here for a reason.
Odetta was a powerful impact on your career. When was the first time you heard her and how did you know she would be a major influence?
I don’t remember the first time I heard her but I know I was searching for other black women in the folk world. It’s very much a good ol’ boys and, to some extent, a good ol’ girls club. I spent so much time distancing myself from comparisons to Tracy Chapman in the beginning of my career that I found myself without a “tribe” so to speak. Since I didn’t think I sounded like Tracy, I felt the comparisons were racially motivated and that wasn’t acceptable.
But then I realized I’d come from a long line of black women who play folk music and that included Joan Armatrading, Odetta, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and so many others and I needed to embrace them.
Odetta spoke to me the most. She was a hybrid of old school gospel (which I grew up with in the Baptist church) and political folk. The messages in her music and her defiance of the social norms of her day really inspired me to keep on my path no matter where it leads.
How many guitars do you have? What kinds are they?
I have 10 guitars. My acoustics are my “road dogs.” I have a thin body, fiberglass-backed Takamine and a dreadnought Larivee. They’ve been through just about everything with me.
I have two electric guitars, an electric ukulele, an electric mini guitar-lele, a mini banjo, a travel Taylor acoustic, a fretless banjo bass and my most recent acquisition is a 1920s Vega Tenor Banjo. I’d been looking for one of these for about seven years and stumbled on this one last year right before I went into the studio for this record.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I learned how to play within a week and wrote the song “Gravity and Grace (Ballad of a Blackeyed Susan)” a week later.
The CD is only being sold at Decatur CD and Urban Cannibals. Why did you decide to take this route and not have it available on the internet?
The CD package will be available through CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com) but never digitally. This project was about stimulating people on all levels. Visually, emotionally, intellectually, then there’s scent, taste, touch…all of it. We are so sensory deprived and this was an opportunity to get people back in touch with those things even for a moment.
Even the excitement of buying a CD has been lost. So I’ve kept a lot of contents a secret so there’s a moment of the “reveal” when you open it. Plus, I love Decatur CD and it’s important for people to support indie shops, especially those selling music.
What’s your favorite thing to cook/bake at Urban Cannibals and why?
Biscuits. They are such a rite of passage in my family. I’m the youngest of four girls and between them and my mother, grandmother and slew of aunts, making a good biscuit or sweet potato pie or collard greens is something that makes you “grown.” I’ve finally caught up to everybody.
And these are my biscuits. They’re not a family recipe or from a cookbook. It comes from me doing it over and over again until it just felt right. Now, I have something to pass along.
Top photo: Doria Roberts performed songs from her new CD at Urban Cannibals recently. (by Dyana Bagby)